50 immigrants drown in Mediterranean tragedy

22.Jun.03,  first published by smh.com.au: read the original article here.

At least 50 bodies have been recovered from Mediterranean waters by today after the sinking off Tunisia of an overloaded boat full of would-be immigrants from Africa, Tunisian emergency services said.

Forty-one survived and search operations were set to continue tomorrow for more than 100 people still missing. But hopes were fading fast.

"We don't have much chance of finding survivors," said an officer of Tunisia's National Guard: "Rescue vessels are trying to pick up bodies from the water."

Some survivors said they had swum for up to five hours before Tunisian naval craft spotted them.

They said they had paid Libyan smugglers for their passage. The boat, a trawler, was "overloaded and in bad condition", one said. The Libyan-owned boat was supposed to take them to Italy.

Several rescue vessels today continued scouring the sea off the Tunisian port of Sfax despite being hampered by high winds.

The 41 survivors, who were being looked after in Sfax, are from Mali, Ghana, Liberia, Somalia, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. They included four women, one of them pregnant.

A strong wind and deteriorating weather may mean that no more bodies will be found. "We had to swim for five hours before being picked up," 24-year-old Abdeljelil of Morocco told AFP from the port of Sfax, where the survivors, all apparently in good condition, were being held today.

The boat sank overnight on Thursday carrying some 250 would-be immigrants picked off the coast of neighbouring Libya on Thursday morning before heading for Italy, survivors said.

"We all paid our smugglers in Libya between $US500 and $US800 ($746 - $1,194)," said 28-year-old Aboubakar of Mali. "There were a lot of us in the boat, which was in bad condition." Abdeljelil said that "cracks appeared in the boat and it began to take on water."

"We managed to seal them, but soon more appeared and the boat capsized at 1:00 am Friday (2100 AEST) morning" some seven hours after setting off, Abdeljelil said.

The boat sank some 60 nautical miles off the Tunisian coast, between Kerkennah and Djerba islands.

The alarm was first raised when the small fishing port of Mahdia near Sfax received a radio distress signal at dawn yesterday from the skipper of a fishing vessel from Sfax.

Tunisia, because of its proximity to the Italian coast, has become a favourite crossing point for clandestine immigrants from sub-Saharan and north Africa heading for Europe. Many also go via Morocco to Spain.

In a recent upsurge in clandestine migration in the region, another boat carrying 28 people bound for Italy was intercepted yesterday off Zarzis, further south along Tunisia's east coast.

Late on Thursday a makeshift boat carrying 24 Africans from a "neighbouring country" - probably Libya - was stopped off Tunisia's Djerba island.

The Italian authorities on Wednesday accused Libya of being the point of departure for boats ferrying immigrants across the Mediterranean to Italy's shores.

A week ago a boat that had sailed from Libya with 70 Africans aboard sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa, claiming at least seven lives.

The Tunisian authorities have sought to clamp down on illegal emigration to Europe.

In early June, a Tunisian woman was sentenced to 22 years and eight months in prison for swindling her compatriots in clandestine immigration schemes.

Tunisian and Italian authorities cooperate closely in the fight against people trafficking, and have signed agreements allowing quotas of migrant workers to enter Italy.